RDS Chamber of Commerce has called on the council to help ‘keep the town alive’ by providing a covered structure for historic Conway Square.

Just weeks after politicians came close to axing the scheme, Chamber President, Derek Wright, called on Ards and North Down Council to provide a more ‘realistic’ cover after it was revealed the cost of the scheme had ballooned to over £800,000.

The well known businessman argued that a covered structure could be installed for a ‘fraction’ of the cost of the current scheme which had morphed far beyond the original concept and ‘turned into the Waterfront Hall’.

He called on the council to ‘be pro-active’ and seek funding from the UK Government’s Levelling Up Fund that helps regenerate town centres and high streets, upgrade local transport and invest in cultural and heritage assets.

The ambitious cover proposal was given a stay of execution earlier this month when councillors on the Place and Prosperity committee agreed to a last ditch consultation with the Newtownards Town Advisory Group (TAG) before making the final decision to bin the scheme.

The scheme began to look in doubt after an outline business case stated that ‘whilst some benefits would be experienced from the project, they were outweighed by the risks and low economic return to Newtownards and the borough’.

The business case further identified ‘several key constraints’ to the Conway Square project including the lack of capital funding for the structure and funding to manage the new structure.

However Mr Wright, who sits on the TAG, said it had been ‘very unbusinesslike’ for local traders to learn about the fate of the Square’s cover by reading about it in the Newtownards Chronicle.

Instead of binning the scheme, Mr Wright urged the local authority to work with the chamber to ‘future proof’ the thriving ‘gateway’ town by providing a cover that will protect the Saturday market and other events from the ‘volatile’ local weather.

The local businessman voiced concern that a ‘strong voice for Newtownards’ was ‘missing’ and he called on the council to ‘look at the scheme again’

He said: “We find the council officers have just agreed to ditch it and there is very little consultation with the councillors, and we have questioned how much power the councillors have. We seem to find there is a lack of joined up thinking and we are missing a strong voice for Newtownards.”

He said: “We need to keep a strong community feel to Newtownards and build a better future for the town. We want the council to revisit this and keep it realistic, more practical, that will keep this town alive.

“If we look at our neighbours in Bangor they are getting an investment of over £100m and we are looking for less that 1% of what is being spent in Bangor.

“It is not ratepayers’ money, it is central government. It is an investment in the town for the community, it is an investment for future generations.”

Mr Wright explained the business community had first brought forward the Square’s cover concept during the pandemic.

“We identified during Covid that Conway Square is the main heart of the town,” he said. “During the the pandemic we saw evidence that people wanted to sit outside to socialise in a good sociable town that is well supported by the community and from people across the Peninsula.

“We identified that Conway Square was under-utilised and we wanted to see how we could do more with the square.”

Mr Wright said £30,000 funding was secured from the Department for Communities to carry out the outline business case. However he said: “The architects came up with a huge scheme, much bigger than what we envisaged and much too big.”

He said they were also disappointed by some of the recommendations of the business case, such as the lack of funds to provide events.

“We got encouraging feedback from concert promoters who said this area could be utilised for small converts and events for 4,000 people and bring the likes of Nathan Carter, so good strong acts.”

Mr Wright suggested that the booking costs and running of events would be borne by the promoter and a rental fee paid to the council.

Helen Lavery, Newtownards Chamber of Trade vice-president, also backed calls for the cover to be constructed.

“We want the cover, we feel that there is a need and a requirement for a covered square to help promote and move the town forward with a positive business slant and to improve the square’s attractability,” she said.